uitar is a popular instrument to learn for many reasons – it’s versatile, portable, and the cost of getting started is relatively low. Plus, it’s easy to learn – with the help of some YouTube videos and a couple of common chord shapes, you can get some of your favorite songs down in little more than an afternoon. But where’s the best place to begin?

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to start learning music as a small child to become good at it. However old you are when you first pick up a guitar, you can learn some basic music theory fundamentals that will make learning to play the guitar (and even translating what you know to other string instruments down the line, if you choose) much easier.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

This is lesson number one in playing guitar, a guide for absolute beginners. So we’ll start at the beginning, with how a guitar is set up and what that means for you and the music you’ll be playing.

Here’s a look at what’s on the agenda:

  • Anatomy of a guitar
  • Learning which string is which
  • Reading guitar music tabs
  • Diving deeper into tone relationships
  • How to place your fingers on the frets
  • And more!
two kids learning to play guitar
Whether you’re a kid or an adult, learning guitar is easy if you learn a few fundamentals to get yourself started.

The Anatomy of a Guitar

Important Guitar Terms You Should Know

Before we start learning how a guitar is set up and how to play, we need to cover some terms that will help us talk about the fundamental guitar skills you’ll be learning. Let’s start with the basic parts of a guitar.

guitar terms: parts of an acoustic guitar
Image courtesy of The Music Partnership.

There are several types of guitar, but the two we’ll talk about today are acoustic and electric guitars. The major difference between an acoustic guitar (like the one pictured above) and an electric guitar is that acoustic guitars generate sound when vibrations produced by strumming the guitar reverberate around the hollow body of the guitar.

On the other hand, electric guitars pick up the string’s vibrations using an aptly named piece of equipment called a pickup. These vibrations are electronically routed to an amplifier (amp) and a speaker. Without electricity or an amp, there is nothing to amplify the string’s vibrations, so the guitar’s sound will be very faint.

Whether you’re using an acoustic or an electric guitar, your guitar will have many of the same basic body parts.

parts of an acoustic vs electric guitar
Image courtesy of Liberty Park Music.

The head of the guitar houses the tuning keys, which can be turned to tighten or loosen the tension on each of the strings to make sure each one is vibrating at the proper pitch.

The neck of the guitar connects the head and the body. It is divided with raised dividers called frets, which indicate places the player can place their fingers to effectively shorten the string and change the pitch produced when it’s strummed. There are also position markers laid into the fretboard to help the guitar player track the position of their hand as they play.

The body of the guitar is most different between an acoustic and electric guitar. Both have a bridge which anchors the guitar strings to the body, and both likely have a pickguard, which prevents the body from getting scratched by the pick as the guitar is played.

An acoustic guitar has a sound hole, whereas an electric guitar has some electrical components like pickups, switches, and jacks. Some electric guitars may have a hollow body like an acoustic guitar, semi-hollow body, or the body may be entirely solid with no sound hole at all.

When you hold the guitar, the neck will go in your left hand and your right hand will strum. This guitarist is using a clip called a capo to adjust the sound of his strings without changing the tuning of the guitar.

Holding the Guitar + Learning Your Guitar Strings

Every Adult Dog Growls Barks eats

Because playing the guitar uses both the left and right hand, most players hold the guitar the same way regardless of whether they are left or right-handed. When you pick up your guitar, you will hold the neck in your left hand and strum with your right.

Look down at your guitar, and you will see six strings a varying thicknesses. From your perspective holding the guitar, the thickest string will be on top, closest to you and the thinnest string will be on the bottom, farthest away.

Each of the strings is named after the note it would produce if you strummed it without fretting a note on it, or in other words, when you play it open. In order from thickest to thinnest (or top to bottom), they go (EADGBe), with uppercase E indicating the thickest string and lowercase e representing the thinnest, highest pitch string.

Remembering all six open notes can be tricky when you’re starting out, but it’s very important because these are the notes you will tune each string to when you are tuning your guitar. Luckily, there’s an easy mnemonic device you can use to keep your notes straight: Every Adult Dog Growls Barks eats.

How Guitarists Communicate: A Crash Course in Guitar Tabs

This handy little mnemonic device will save you a lot of frustration early on until you have the strings more memorized. This also comes in handy because it helps you understand the way a tab is laid out.

Unlike a majority of instruments that rely on sheet music set on a musical staff, you will find that the vast majority of guitar music and exercises are written in the form of tabs.

When you are looking at tabs, they simply present a diagram with the guitar strings and then place a number on them to show you which fret you are supposed to be playing.

Just remember that tabs are written “upside down” because this matches up with the way you look at the guitar while playing. As such the top of a tab is the high e string and the bottom of the tab is the low E string.The following tab shows how you might tab out an A Major Scale, but it’s really just here to give you the idea, don’t worry about playing this guy yet!

A Major Scale guitar tab by Anthony Stockton
A Major Scale Guitar Tab. Graphic by Anthony Stockton.

Music Theory Fundamentals for Guitar

An Introduction to Scales and Chords

Ok, now that you understand how the guitar is laid out, and how guitarists communicate music notation to each other, we can start learning how to play guitar.

Since I’m sure you want to know how to play the instrument, and not just how to play a few individual songs, this is going to involve some music theory.

Now there are two fundamental components to music: scales and chords.

Your First Finger Exercise for Guitar: The Major Scale

A scale is a group of musical notes ordered by pitch. You’ll learn many different scales as you play guitar, but my favorite scale to start people off with is the major scale. Now why, you may be wondering, should you bother with the major scale? Well not only is it a common scale that can be used in many types of music, learning to play the notes in sequence is also a great finger exercise for beginners. And on top of that, learning the finger positions for your major scale will also teach you where to put the roots of your different chords in that key.

To play notes you’ll press the strings down to the neck of the guitar. You’ll want to hold the string down completely to the fretboard, which takes some finger strength to do. Then just strum or pluck the string to create a sound.

Make sure your fingers aren’t bumping the frets themselves or strings anywhere you don’t mean to be bumping them – this will muddy the sound of your notes, and we want our notes to be clean and clear.

(Don’t worry if they aren’t at first – it takes practice!)

color coded major scale exercise for beginning guitar players
Color-Coded Major Scale Exercise. Diagram by Anthony Stockton.

We'll start out with this simple exercise that will be fundamental in building all of your hand and tendon strength up for playing the guitar.

To play this major scale exercise, you’ll hold the string down at each of the frets shown in the diagram above and pick that string only. As you step through the finger positions in the diagram above or the explanation below, you'll notice that the pitch of the notes of the major scale go up, and then go back down.

Playing the notes in the scale in order from lowest to highest will result in an ascending scale, and playing them backwards will be a descending scale. Either way, you’ll start building up the muscles and dexterity in your fingers as you practice.

Here are the fingers you should use as you move through each note in the scale, step by step:

First, on the E string: 

  • Use your index finger on the 5th fret and pick the E string
  • Then your middle finger on the 7th fret and pick the E string
  • Then your pinky finger on the 9th fret and pick the E string

Then, on the A string:

  • Use your index finger on the 5th fret and pick the A String
  • Then your middle finger on the 7th fret and pick the A string
  • Then your pinky finger on the 9th fret and pick the A string
  • Then your middle finger on the 7th fret and pick the A string
  • Use your index finger on the 5th fret and pick the A string

Then back on the E string: 

  • Use your pinky finger on the 9th fret and pick the E string
  • Then your middle finger on the 7th fret and pick the E string
  • And finally your index finger on the 5th fret and pick the E string

Now once you have learned this scale disguised as a finger exercise, here’s some good news: you already basically know all of your major scales! Pretty cool right? You don’t have to worry about learning all the notes in all the different scales –you can just use that five fret pattern in any major key to play a major scale!

As such, you are already well on your way to mastering scales on guitar. Just remember that your major scale is composed of the scale steps (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) and as such you can use the following diagrams to see how that finger exercise plays the first six notes of a major scale.

This first chart simply shows you the relationships of notes on the guitar fretboard in relation to whatever your tonic note is (also called a root note or keynote – this just means the first note in your scale).

All of the root notes in this chart are marked in black to make them easily identifiable. One handy trick to glean from this chart is that if you go down two strings, and up two frets, you will get to the note you started on*

*In every scenario except on the B string because it requires an extra fret up. So two strings three frets because of the extra half step required there.  

Tone Relationship Study Chart for guitar by Anthony Stockton
Tone Relationship Study Chart by Anthony Stockton.

Try mapping the finger positions you just learned in the major scale exercise to their location on this map. You can pick different starting points but use the same hand shapes to play your scale in different keys. Just think of putting your:

  • Index finger on 1, Ring finger on 2, Pinky on 3
  • Then Index finger on 4, Ring finger on 5, and Pinky on 6

This works for every key of music! Just make sure the 1 from that diagram is the root note of the key you are in. So if you are in G Major you can put the 1 on the 3rd fret of the E string. Or if you are in C Major you can put the 1 on the 3rd fret of the A string.

Here are some examples tabbed out in G Major and C Major. Where the 1/root note is highlighted.

G Major and C Major scale tabs by Anthony Stockton
G Major and C Major Scale tabs by Anthony Stockton.

If you’re still a little confused, don’t worry. I’ve also put together a handy little chart that maps out all of the notes on the guitar fretboard – not just their tonal relationships – to help clarify things.

Every Note on a Guitar Fretboard chart by Anthony Stockton
Every Note On Guitar Fretboard. Chart by Anthony Stockton.

Between these two charts, scales should be starting to make some sense. But what about those chords we mentioned earlier? Not to worry, we’ll cover that here, too. Chords are essentially just a series of notes played simultaneously to create a harmonic relationship between the notes.

Once you have some notes down, you can play multiple notes together for your first chord.

Learning the guitar takes lots of practice and a little bit of background knowledge. In this article, we covered some essential information about guitar – like the language musicians use to communicate about their instruments and how to read the tabs that communicate the music itself.

We’ve also covered a great finger exercise for beginning guitarists and learned some of the music theory behind it.

Next time, we’ll be taking our scales up a notch and learning how to put notes together into chords, which is where things really get exciting, so stay tuned! You can find the next installment of our series on music theory for guitar right here: How Chords Work.

Got lingering questions about guitar 101? Something in this article not make sense? Want to know more about a specific music theory topic? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.

Mar 9, 2022